Loving the Child You HaveJune 10, 2014
As parents, we want the best for our children. Encouraging our kids to be the best they can be while remaining true to themselves can be tricky. Sometimes, what we want for our children clashes with who they are. A highly educated parent who is a voracious reader might be completely confounded by a child who hates to read. An active person whose formative years were spent playing team sports might have difficulty accepting a child who prefers to draw and play indoors. The decision to become a parent is a leap of faith, and biology does have a tendency to interrupt our fantasies.
No child enters the world a tabula rasa. Each of us is born with our own personality traits, abilities, and quirks. In his book "Far From the Tree", Andrew Solomon explores the meaning of parenting by focusing on families of various exceptional children. Solomon spent a decade interviewing families of children who are deaf, dwarves, autistic, and transgender. He spoke with families of children who were protégés, and parents of children who commit crimes.
Solomon’s interest in exploring how families adapt to children who are different from themselves is personal. As a gay male growing up with largely un-accepting, straight parents, Solomon endured a lonely struggle to change the unchangeable, participating in a type of reversion therapy that required him to engage in heterosexual intimacies with a “sexual surrogate.” He ultimately learned to accept himself as a gay man and found support in the LGBT community.
Solomon focuses on identity development and uses the terms vertical and horizontal identity to explore difference. Vertical identity refers to family traits that can be passed on from parent to child. Horizontal identity refers to the identity of a child who is very different from his parents. Solomon sites ethnicity, culture, and religion as examples of vertical identity traits. Horizontal identity would develop for deaf children of hearing parents, or disabled children of able-bodied parents.
In "Far From the Tree", the parents who fared best, who were the most satisfied, were those who embraced their child’s difference, and altered their own identities in the process. Parents who became advocates for their kids by participating in a wider community found a deep meaning in their lives. Connecting with other families of children like theirs was empowering and gave them hope that life would be different than expected but joyful and full none the less. Some parents struggled to accept their children for who they were, expecting them to become someone they clearly weren’t.
The concept of horizontal and vertical identity is an extremely relative notion. The journey we experience as parents is determined by the intersection of difference between ourselves and our kids. In order to see our children for who they are, we have to let go of our ideas of who we want them to be. We have to love the child we have and let go of the child we wish for. The wisdom is in knowing the difference, and in setting expectations that are realistic for our individual children and encouraging of who they are.
llJamie Katz is a psychotherapist in Seattle specializing in the treatment of anxiety and trauma. An LA native, Jamie enjoys hiking, cooking and exploring the Northwest with her family. Jamie trains educators and healthcare professionals in the treatment of trans youth and provides supportive psychotherapy to gender nonconforming kids and their families.